You probably know that fried food, chocolate cake and loaded bacon cheeseburgers are not the best foods to consume as part of a healthy diet, but what exactly makes them so unhealthy? Junk foods and foods with a lot of animal products contain unhealthy fats, and may lack many nutrients that are important for overall health and heart health. Foods with unhealthy fats and lots of animal byproducts also have large amounts of cholesterol.
Our bodies need cholesterol to work properly (it’s used to build cells in the body,) but too much in our blood can lead to a variety of dangerous conditions. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that has two sources: your body, and the food you eat. It’s carried through your bloodstream by carriers made of fat and proteins called lipoproteins. Cholesterol is made by your liver, and the amount made is sufficient to sustain you without any additional source. Cholesterol is also contained in the food you eat, mainly red meat, poultry, and dairy (milk, eggs, and butter.) These foods are high in saturated and trans fats, and cause your liver to make more cholesterol than normal. Some popular oils like coconut and palm kernel oil are also high in cholesterol and usually appear in baked goods like cakes, cookies and donuts.
Cholesterol circulates in your blood, building cells in your body. Because your blood goes to every part of your body, having too much cholesterol in your blood raises your risk of several types of diseases, such as heart disease, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If you already have one or more of these diseases, a diagnosis of high cholesterol may increase your risk of adverse effects from the disease or increase your risk of developing another disease in addition.
The two types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol through your bloodstream are known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL.) LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” type of cholesterol, as it leaves fatty buildups in the arteries as it makes its way through the bloodstream. Plaque buildups in arteries can lead to heart attacks and strokes. HDL cholesterol is considered the “good” type of cholesterol, as it acts as a LDL cholesterol scrubber, carrying some of the LDL cholesterol away from arteries and back to the liver to be processed. A healthy HDL cholesterol level may help protect against heart disease and stroke, but it doesn’t completely eliminate bad cholesterol. Only about a quarter of blood cholesterol is carried by high-density lipoprotein.
Measuring cholesterol levels is as simple as a blood test, but understanding them may be another hurdle for patients to jump. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that all adults age 20 and older have their cholesterol tested every four to six years. This report will show cholesterol levels as a milligram (ml) portion of every deciliter of blood (dL.) The test results are calculated by measuring the levels of HDL and LDL in the blood, and adding 20 percent of the triglyceride level in the blood to reach a total cholesterol reading. Normal triglyceride levels vary by age and sex of the patient, but those with high triglycerides often have a high LDL and a low HDL—a worrying combination for those who are trying to avoid heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Doctors want cholesterol levels to have a low LDL (bad cholesterol) reading and a high HDL (good cholesterol) reading, and take an integrated approach to care to treat any results that are outside of normal range.
The main risk factors in developing high cholesterol are a poor diet and family history. Cholesterol conditions can certainly be hereditary, and some people inherit genes that make them produce more cholesterol than is needed. This is called familial hypercholesterolemia, and raises the degree of LDL in the blood. This dangerous condition can cause premature heart disease due to LDL cholesterol causing plaque buildups in arteries. For the vast majority of people, your body naturally produces all the LDL cholesterol it needs to function. Adding more LDL cholesterol on top of that with unhealthy eating patterns and a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for a serious heart attack or stroke, and may complicate conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.
Medications may assist in lowering levels of LDL in the blood, but lifestyle changes like bettering your diet and exercising may increase levels of HDL in the blood to combat the bad levels. Simple switches like using margarine instead of butter is an easy way to lower the amount of animal products you consume. Margarine is vegetable oil whipped with air, and have less partially hydrogenated, saturated and trans fats than solid butter spreads and hard stick butter. Reading nutrition labels is also an essential part of changing lifestyles. Foods that are marked “low cholesterol” may still have high levels of saturated fat and trans fat, both fats that raise cholesterol. Even “low-fat” foods may have surprisingly high amounts of sugar or other types of fat. By paying attention to serving size, caloric content, fat content and sodium content, you can make smart food choices that will lower your cholesterol. Regular exercise can also go far in keeping arteries working as they should and may help with weight loss that is a common risk factor for high cholesterol. The AHA recommends 40 minutes of medium to high intensity aerobic exercise three to four times a week to start off with. These steps, combined with taking cholesterol medication exactly as prescribed, will put you in charge of your cholesterol levels, and overall, your health.
Dr. Gildardo Ceballos
OakBend Medical Group
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.